All but four square inches of Davian Robinson’s body proclaim him a modern dancer.
His feet show calluses from their flat-footed walk and frequent contact with the floor. His dense-calved, compact legs rise to a short, thick-muscled torso and long arms. His square neck can absorb a partner’s weight or impact upon landing.
Only his eyes say otherwise. The left one, cloudy blue as an April sky, rolls slightly upward and perceives nothing. The right, brown and seemingly receptive as you speak to him, takes in shadowy, undefined images.
“Some people say seeing is believing,” he tells you. “I say believing is seeing.”
Davian Jaquel Robinson – D.J. to anyone who spends a few minutes around him – believes he’s a dancer.
And though he’s legally blind and gets around the UNC Charlotte campus with a guide dog named Charlie, he has made others believe it, too.
Marcus White, who came down from Detroit to choreograph a new piece for this week’s fall dance concert, not only included D.J. but tailored it slightly for him. Ann Dils, head of UNCC’s dance department, approved D.J.’s request to become the first blind dance major in the university’s history.
What will it take?
He recently applied to study in a summer immersive program in Italy, one that whirls students through training in styles from baroque to modern. He has no “cognitive map” – his term for navigating landscapes – for Turin and Moncalvo. He doesn’t speak Italian. But don’t bet against him. As he said in his application, “I have a disability which is a challenge and barrier, but it does not define me.”
He’s used to pushing on barriers until they give way. He took his first airplane trip alone in 2010, flying from Raleigh to Colorado to win Paralympic medals in running and cycling at the Rocky Mountain State Games. “I was 18, and I called that ‘my blind freedom,’ ” he remembers. “Now I’m traveling all over the place.”
But those are solo activities. Dance involves partners, sometimes a lot of them moving in intricate patterns that must be executed precisely once they’re set. To meet that challenge, he needs aid.
Teachers and choreographers can’t rely on “Do it like this” demonstrations that work everywhere else. A student mentor helps D.J. learn movements from scratch by standing alongside him in class or rehearsal, describing what other dancers do around him or even positioning his limbs until his muscle memory kicks in.
That’s more work for him, more work for them. As Marcus White learned, the labor makes a choreographer think more clearly about every aspect of a piece.
The founder of WhiteWerx heard after he’d taken the job that he’d be working with a visually impaired student for the first time. “I had to be much clearer with words about what the bodies were doing in space,” he says. “This will be D.J.’s first time performing on the main stage here, and I had to figure out how to create a safe space for him, using guided touch by other dancers.”
Lillian Willis was already his friend when she graduated in May with a dance degree. As his main mentor now, she stands behind him and adjusts his positions. Sometimes he touches her as she flows through movements to get them in his mind. If a choreographer speaks too quickly, she repeats his instructions slowly.
“I watch all the dancers (onstage) and see how they interact with D.J.,” she explains. “If he has to walk in an arc, his partner might use a light pressure on his back to guide him. And I ask him how best to communicate during high-stress situations. When something’s hard for D.J., he can be frustrated that everyone else can see what’s happening around the room.”
At 25, D.J.’s a quick learner. He does almost everything fast: speak, move, gesture, dream. This is a guy who once turned back a guide dog because she couldn’t keep up with him. His confidence may be a holdover from the days when he could see.
Vision departs but world expands
His childhood in Hickory began with a premature birth: He weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces. Though he started with 20/20 vision, he suffered from retinopathy. He went through a series of surgeries as a boy, playing video games and sports as his vision degenerated. He lost the use of his left eye at 8 to a detached retina and had cataract surgery on the other. (Today he has 20/500 vision in his right eye. What he sees at 20 feet, a person with normal vision sees more than one-and-a-half football fields away.)
We never thought ‘No.’ We just thought, ‘How?’
Ann Dils of UNC Charlotte’s dance department
His mother sent him to the Governor Morehead School in Raleigh, the state’s only residential school for visually impaired students. There he discovered ballet, jazz, tap – “which I loved because it was about sound, the way your feet hit the floor” – and especially hip-hop. “That’s what showed me I could excel,” he says. “I was always ready to get out of classes, practice track for an hour and a half and then go straight to dance.”
When he came to UNCC, where his credits now put him between his junior and senior years, he settled on an exercise science curriculum with some idea of going into physical therapy. But when he decided to add a dance performance major, Ann Dils backed him.
“He’s so gifted in other ways and such a bright spirit that he rearranges how you think about people’s (abilities),” she says. “The physical rigor of dance means many students need different kinds of accommodation. We have students with chronic injuries, scoliosis, chronic fatigue, all conditions that have to be negotiated by our faculty. So we never thought ‘No.’ We just thought, ‘How?’
“The Disabilities Services folks on campus have coached us on precautions we need to take,” says Dils. “For instance, how do you get a visually impaired person on Belk Stage with an orchestra pit and booms sticking out with lighting equipment on them? You can see the dance community working to keep Davian safe and at the same time let him be his own unique self.”
Rachel Barker, who teaches the improvisation class he’s currently taking, finds a greater sense of community among her students now.
“They perform differently with D.J., using body touch as cues. Students other than his mentor take his arm, and this sense of unity wouldn’t exist if he weren’t there. I am reminded there are different ways to teach and learn, and that makes me a better teacher.
“He shared reflections in his midterm paper and journal about feeling isolated, so this is a beautiful lesson for me and my students about our differences. At the same time, I need to be aware not to make class be all about D.J. all the time. He’s so strong, and he has an impressive, aggressive movement style.”
Whether the outside world will embrace him so readily remains to be seen.
Alicia Alonso remained a ballet star for decades, though she was blind in one eye and had no peripheral vision in the other. (Partners never deviated from positions by more than a few inches; a protective wire at waist height ran across the front of the stage.) Jamie Meyer, who’s legally blind, now dances professionally with First State Ballet Theatre in Delaware. But both had or have better vision than D.J.
Mary Verdi-Fletcher has worked for 37 years to integrate disabled dancers into the mainstream world, mostly as the founder of Dancing Wheels Company. (Her Cleveland troupe blends stand-up dancers and those in wheelchairs.)
She says more companies around the world have integrated disabled dancers, especially those on wheels, but she doesn’t know of any who’ve taken on a dancer as visually disabled as D.J. And, she says, a degree in dance performance is extremely rare for such a person: “Colleges offer special integrated dance classes, but they don’t consider disabled dancers to be in the mainstream. I don’t know of any colleges equipped to allow people with disabilities to get degrees in dance.
“But if you think about it, integrating them introduces another technique, another way of training dancers. Good dancers want to have all kinds of experience, and good choreographers want to expand their vocabularies.”
That’s the philosophy with which D.J. faces the future: Seeing blindness as a way to heighten consciousness, not restrict it. He has choreographed a piece in which some dancers wore blindfolds to replicate his experience, and he plans to conduct workshops in which dancers use hearing and touch to relate to each other.
“I used to think, when people told me I was a good dancer, that they were just taking pity on me, but later I saw that wasn’t true. Now I’m not going to quit,” he says.
“My job as a dancer is to entertain, empower, express ideas about social change, and I can do that in a unique way.”
UNCC Fall Dance Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16-18; 2 p.m. Nov. 19.
Where: Robinson Hall, Belk Theatre, UNC Charlotte campus.
Tickets: $18 ($12 UNC Charlotte faculty, staff or alumni, $10 seniors, active military or veterans, $8 students).